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Berlin Film Review: ‘National Bird’

Three veterans try to slam America's drone program without crossing into treasonous territory in this critical-minded doc.

The first time an MQ-1 Predator or MQ-9 Reaper takes out a human target on U.S. soil (along with any women, children and “military-aged males” close enough to be considered collateral damage), American citizens are likely to change their tune about the military’s still-too-secret drone program. That’s not just the subtext, but the virtual guarantee of Sonia Kennebeck’s alarm-sounding topic doc “National Bird,” which uses fly-over footage of various domestic locations to drive home the point that these unmanned aerial vehicles, designed to protect lives, could just as easily be turned against us — or the three courageous whistleblowers who’ve chosen to share their experience.

Chilling testimony from those three veterans, each of whom helped to wage war from behind consoles half a world away, serves as the backbone of a film that adds its voice to mounting criticism of the U.S. drone program. And while most of this terrain has already been covered in other media, with the weight of exec producers Wim Wenders and Errol Morris’ names behind it (plus a catchy title suggested by Sole and DJ Pain 1’s end-credits rap track), “National Bird” should cast an impressive shadow, inspiring some real debate in op-ed and public radio forums upon its release.

In contrast with most anti-drone rhetoric, launched from armchairs equally far removed from the field, Kennebeck puts forth opinions from those who have actually sat in the program’s virtual cockpits, or else directly analyzed the data that serves to identify the targets. But even within their capacity as whistleblowers, her sources remain severely limited in what they can say without fear of being charged under the 1917 Espionage Act. Their lawyers not only must sign off the filming of certain scenes, but actually become characters in the film at a certain point, as happens with Jesselyn Radack, who also represents Edward Snowden.

Snowden, of course, was the subject of Laura Poitras’ Oscar-winning “Citizenfour,” and Kennebeck would no doubt like for “National Bird” to be seen as similarly earth-shattering. It’s tricky, considering the director has to be clever about how the film presents what information she does have, dealing with the fact that First Amendment protections have receded since 9/11. Daniel (introduced, like all the film’s subjects, by just his first name) can’t say much, but is the most fascinating of the film’s three main characters. Despite being anti-war, he describes enlisting to avoid homelessness, only to be assigned to a top-secret drone-related post. Since leaving the service, Daniel participates in peace marches and decorates his apartment with anti-establishment posters (Black Panthers, “Who Needs Capitalism?”) — which might explain why the FBI raided his apartment and threatens to charge him with treason.

Similarly cautious, former drone-system technical sergeant Lisa shares a letter of commendation she received for having helped to identify 121,000 insurgent targets over a two-year period, suggesting that viewers “do the math” to estimate how many fatalities there have been since American declared war on Afghanistan in 2001. Lisa actually feels so conflicted about her involvement that she joins a neighbor on her annual trip to Afghanistan, setting out to meet the civilian survivors of misdirected strikes.

These sequences, which put a human face on those who were lucky enough to walk away (often on prosthetic legs, as provided by a hospital she visits), drive home the danger of a world in which drones are allowed. “National Bird” cites examples of ordinary Afghans bombed at funerals, weddings and religious ceremonies, even going so far as to show footage of one mistargeted family bringing home the corpses of 23 relatives.

“It’s like borders don’t matter anymore,” observes Lisa, who was part of an operation to suck up and process personal data in order to identify individuals who could then be blasted out of the clear blue sky. If the U.S. can justify the use of drones in Afghanistan, the film implies, on what authority can we forbid other countries from doing the same to us? As a filmed conversation with retired Joint Special Operations Command general Stanley A. McChrystal makes it clear, drone technology isn’t going away. But does that mean Americans, too, will one day have to worry about being bombed as they walk to school?

Not if Heather, a former drone-imagery analyst, can help it. Since retiring from an Air Force DGS team, Heather has battled PTSD, even though she did her service a long way from the front lines. Her main objective in participating is to show how inadequately the military responds to the emotional needs of analysts, who witness countless casualties, but seldom ever get feedback on their strikes.

“I can say the drone program is wrong because I don’t know how many people I’ve killed,” says Heather, who spent much of her enlisted time on a suicide watch list with no support from the military. (Even now, it’s hard for her to find therapist with a high enough security clearance to counsel her.) While the counterargument might hold that other forms of warfare are far more “messy,” her point is perhaps the one that could most realistically enact change: She feels that the military doesn’t consider the emotional needs of its analysts, having lost several of her own colleagues to alcoholism and depression, while others redirect their frustrations at the fuzzy blobs on their monitors. To see and hear a transcript of one such strike re-enacted is traumatic enough for audiences. Now imagine watching such incidents day in, day out for years.

Berlin Film Review: 'National Bird'

Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (Berlinale Special), Feb. 13, 2016. Running time: 92 MIN.

Production: (Documentary) A Ten Forward Films production. (International sales: ro*co Films Intl., Sausalito, Calif.) Produced by Sonia Kennebeck, Ines Hofmann Kanna. Executive producers, Wim Wenders, Errol Morris.

Crew: Directed by Sonia Kennebeck. Camera (color, HD), Torsten Lapp; editor, Maxine Goedicke; music, Insa Rudolph; sound, Ansgar Frerich; sound designer, Sebastian Tesch.

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